Comment: Travel awards for the less privileged

The World Travel Awards event held at Paradise Island on Sunday night was a resounding success for tourism in Maldives.

Out of a possible 57 awards in the Indian Ocean category, the Maldives won 35 including the ‘Leading Destination’ title. All the wins listed on the site seem to solidify Maldives’ position as the leading travel destination in the region.

In fact, this success certainly disproves the theory that the tourism industry has taken a hit from the February 2012 transfer of power.

So how does the pageant touted by some as the Oscars of the travel and tourism industry stack up against the likes of British Guild of Travel Writers’ (BGTW) Tourism Awards or the Michelin Green Guide?

The obvious difference between World Travel Awards and most of its competition is the former’s expansive list of categories and titles. The BGTW Tourism Awards has fewer categories in which thousands of potential businesses across the globe compete.

In contrast, businesses have a much better chance of taking a win from competing in the World Travel Awards. However, that maybe the only thing the World Travel Awards has going for it, because behind the veil of all the glitz and gala is a highly questionable business.

The first item of interest is the contact address given on the website. The address ‘SE1 8SJ, London’ comes up as a stall in the visitor centre in London’s Waterloo Station.

For an awards show with 20 years of history, a stall in a visitor centre seems a little too modest. What is more surprising is that the address is home to another 33 companies under the same ownership as the World Travel Awards Limited, the company running the awards.

The World Travel Awards Limited is currently owned by a single shareholder, a Mr Graham Edward Cooke, who has listed Bayham Hall, Bayham Abbey in Kent as his address in the company’s articles of association. The company was originally registered with four shareholders holding a total of 200 shares worth a total value of GBP£200.

In the latest annual return filed by the company, the capital situation remained the same whilst Mr Graham Edward Cooke had become the sole owner. The company secretary is a Miss Manyoung Han.

Like the registered address of the company, Mr. Cooke and Miss Han also have highly quizzical places of residence. The website lists 101 other individuals and 24 other companies sharing the same address as Mr Cooke, and 46 individuals and 8 companies sharing Miss Han’s address. This clearly indicates that both addresses are for mail forwarding services.

As for the company’s address, 33 other companies sharing it suggests that it too may be another mail forwarding service. As for the 33 other companies owned by Mr Cooke, they have all posted little or no profits and have had dozens of dissolution notices served across the lot of them.

Why then did the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board enlist the services of this company given its questionable reputation?

Perhaps the lack of reputation is in itself an advantage. Since the company never declared a capital greater than GBP£200 throughout its existence it would not be difficult to incentivise the declaration of more wins for the Maldives. This leaves two questions to be answered.

Firstly, did the government of Maldives truly know that the company they were dealing with was really a shell corporation? If it did not, then did they really pay exorbitant sums to advertise on the awards website?

The second question is, if the government did know the nature of the company, why then were they given such broad coverage?

Could that not be interpreted as the country’s admission of the weakness of its tourism industry? Should it not be engaging a stronger partner like Michelin instead?

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Tourism, Defence Ministers deny involvement with “international criminals”

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb and Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim have denied involvement with an infamous pair of Armenian brothers linked with drug trafficking, money laundering, raids on media outlets and other serious crimes in Kenya.

Photos of the Arturs in the company of the two Maldivian ministers emerged on social media over the weekend, apparently taken during the Piston Motor Racing Challenge held on Hulhumale’ between January 25 and 26.

One photo showed Artur Sargsyan next to Adheeb and Nazim, while another has him apparently starting one of the motorcycle races at the event, which was organised by the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF). Another image showed Sargsyan at the red carpet opening for the Olympus Cinema.

Defence Minister Nazim has denied any association with the brothers: “I came to know about them after the rumors started spreading on social media networks. But no country had informed of us anything officially,” local media reported Nazim as saying. “To my knowledge those two men have left the Maldives,” he said.

Adheeb acknowledged meeting the brothers during the event, but bemoaned to Haveeru how “information about this issue is being spread by the media rather negatively. I have no links with them.”

“They met with us in Hulhumale’. They told us that they were defrauded by some senior officials of the former government [former President Nasheed’s government], who took large sums of money from them for investment in the Maldives,” Adheeb said.

“If you want to know the truth about who has links with the Artur brothers, you should find out who the shareholders are of the company established by them in the Maldives. It’s not right that Haveeru reports everything that’s shared on social media. The photo showing [me with] the Artur brothers was taken at an event that was open to the public,” he said.

Meanwhile, a letter from the Tourism Ministry to immigration authorities requesting a residency visa for Margaryan and Sargayan Artur, dated January 27 and signed by Adheeb, was subsequently leaked on social media.

Speaking to Minivan New, Adheeb reiterated that he had no personal links with the Artur brothers, whom he said had now left the country on his recommendation.

According to Adheeb, the Artur brothers had previously invested in the country through a registered joint venture company with members of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

“They complained to me that these partners had [defrauded] them and that their visas had expired,” he said.

“I advised them to leave peacefully and they agreed to sort out their visa and leave. They have now left.”

Adheeb added that his decision to ask the brothers to leave had been “for the good of the country”.

He claimed issues concerning the two brothers had been politicised intentionally following the PPM primaries held on Saturday (March 30).

Details of the brothers’ investments in the Maldives – and their Maldivian partners – were also released by the Ministry for Economic Development.

Haveeru reported that ‘Artur Brothers World Connections’ was registered in the Maldives in October 2012, with the Artur brothers holding an 80 percent share in a 61-19 percent split.

French nationals identified as Godzine Sargsyan and Edga Sargsyan had a 10 and 7 percent share, while a Maldivian national Ismail Waseem of H. Ever Chance was listed as holding the remaining 3 percent.

Waseem’s share was subsequently transferred to Abdulla Shaffath of H. Ever Peace on November 25.

The Untouchables

Kenyan media network KTN in 2011 dubbed the brothers ‘The Untouchables’ in a three-hour exposé of their activities in the country, during which time they were found to have ingratiated themselves with the government to such an extent that they were made deputy police commissioners – the third highest rank in the Kenyan police force.

Their arrival in Kenya followed the 2004 seizure by police of 1.1 tons of cocaine, the country’s largest cocaine haul worth US$88 million at the time.

Fifteen months later, according to an investigation by Kenya’s Standard newspaper, the brothers were brought into the country “by rogue government officials to set up and train a specialised anti-narcotics unit.”

“More than one source suggests the state was tricked into hiring enforcers working for drug traffickers who wanted to recover the cocaine being held in Kenya,” the Standard reported.

“The hired guns failed to complete their task after they were publicly exposed following their March 2, 2006, raid on the Standard Group. This was a bungled operation ordered on the strength of false information about an alleged story linking powerful individuals to drug trafficking in Kenya. No such story existed,” the paper stated.

In a Skype interview for the earlier KTN report, one of the brothers admitted to leading the armed, masked police raid on the media outlet, which saw journalists beaten, computers confiscated and newspapers burned.

The Artur brothers in Kenya

A leaked US Embassy cable in 2006 observed that “the presence in Kenya of armed foreigners working on behalf of ruling elements has alarmed many Kenyans, both in and out of government.”

“Despite repeated government denials, post believes foreigners were indeed directly involved in the police raids. One journalist who escaped the raids privately tells us police contacts warned him weeks earlier that foreigners had been imported to protect the First Family from public corruption charges,” read one leaked cable.

“Some believe these same foreigners played a role (via the Akasha crime family) in the 2004 cocaine shipments seized in Kenya, and have now returned to intimidate opponents (in or out of government) from releasing information incriminating State House in any illicit activities,” it added.

Whatever their real activities, the Kenyan government’s indulgence of the brothers came to an end three months after the Standard raid, when the brothers took umbrage at a request to search their bags at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and pulled guns on customs officers.

“The Arturs stormed the customs area, demanding their bags be allowed through,” reported KTN. “Customs protested, but were punched and shoved aside. The two drew pistols, forcing the officers to scamper for safety. They then left the airport.”

Travelling in and out of the country on multiple passports was “normal practice” for the brothers, KTN reported, “as was carrying guns around the city. They took over the town by storm while the government looked the other way.”

Facing international condemnation for its inaction over the pair, the Kenyan government finally suspended a number of senior police officials and ordered their arrest, KTN reported.

After a standoff at their residence, police used a vehicle to ram the gate of the compound and took the brothers into custody.

A search revealed of the residence revealed bulletproof jackets, gun holsters, CCTV and infra-red cameras, Kenyan passports in the brothers’ names, several AK-47 assault rifles, and four pistols with filed serial numbers, two of which were later found to belong to two officers of the Kenyan President’s elite escort unit who had been robbed of them at gunpoint, KTN reported.

“The men were finally kicked out of the country and disowned by state officials as ‘international criminals’,” reported the Standard.

KTN’s investigation into the ‘Untouchables’ Part One

KTN’s investigation into the ‘Untouchables’ Part Two, Three